Let's face it: Medea, though grievously wronged by her husband, Jason, is not exactly your prototypical battered wife. She's the daughter of the king of Colchis, the granddaughter of the sun, a wife, a witch, a mother, a primeval terror in her own right. Medea is not a woman to be easily characterized. "I am adept at everything that's hidden," she boasts to the women of Corinth. She then goes on to commit atrocities that astonish even her. To play her mostly as victim is to humble one of world literature's most titanic creations.
Yet even if the initial concept of the production is wrongheaded, the Euripides "Medea" now in a limited engagement at the Longacre Theater is efficient, polished and high-toned. It's also a theatrical event, marking the return to Broadway of Diana Rigg, who plays the title role, her first appearance in New York since 1975 and her bewitching performance as Celimene in "The Misanthrope." Further, this "Medea," directed by Jonathan Kent, is fashionably contemporary in its theatrical effects and in Alistair Elliot's new translation. Mr. Elliot does not veer eccentrically from other versions, but he makes more pronounced the feminism that is built into the Euripides text without, however, being its point.
If Medea fascinates, it is in part because she is the mistress of the black arts. They are her heritage in the barbaric land from which she fled to Greece with Jason, after helping him steal the Golden Fleece. Medea, who has been badly treated, can give as well as she gets. Before the dark events related by Euripides, she had already committed several ghastly murders, though always in the cause of Jason's career. It's not the murders she is regretting at the beginning of "Medea." She's furious at the ingratitude of Jason who, having settled with her in Corinth, has abandoned her and their two small sons to marry the daughter of Creon, the king.Mo
Euripides (485-406 B.C.) acknowledges the disadvantaged status of women but, if he has any interest in changing that status it doesn't show in "Medea." He's more concerned with the spectacle of passions so grand and terrible that, by resisting all rational analysis, they reveal some measure of the depth of the soul. It's not a concept easily understood in our world, where the Medeas live in the suburbs. They become infatuated with bouncers and auto body mechanics, do their bloody misdeeds in fits of momentary derangement (which they never remember), then sell their stories to television and become famous.
The gorgeous Ms. Rigg is equipped with a big velvety voice and the gift to command it. She's a voluptuous Medea, but she's also a very civilized one. She looks as if she'd come not from the edge of the known world, a place where they eat with their fingers, but from Belgravia. She wears the kind of classically cut gown (blood red in this case) that Mainbocher once designed for Lynn Fontanne, something so simple of line that it never goes out of style, so well stitched that it always hangs perfectly. Her skin is milky white, her auburn hair parted in the middle and gathered in a single braid at the back. Medea is described as a barbarian but comes on like the fashion plate of Corinth.
Things have somehow got back to front in this production. Jason taunts Medea with the idea that, without him, she would have lived out her life in the rude obscurity of Colchis. Yet it's Ms. Rigg's elegant Medea who civilizes what appears to be the barbarian world of Corinth. At least that's how Greece is evoked in Peter J. Davison's severe, handsome, vaguely Expressionistic set. Representing the forecourt of Medea's palace, the set looks like an open-air dungeon, one plated in the bronze that gives the age its name. When a door closes, it sounds as if an entire tier of cells at Sing Sing were being locked up for the night.
The set seems to exist for its own theatrical effect. It makes stunning images possible. At a crucial moment in the play's supposedly cathartic climax, several bronze plates fall from the palace facade with an astounding clatter. Revealed inside is Medea with the bloodied corpses of her sons, the tableau framed by the ropes holding the bronze plates. The ropes look like marionette strings, possibly a reference to the interfering gods, though the gods have nothing to do with Medea and Jason's domestic problems.
Ms. Rigg speaks Mr. Elliot's lines with consistent if studied intelligence and bite. She roars, but she never loses her composure or knocks a hair out of place. The fire inside is always under control, something Ms. Rigg's Medea seems to have learned in boarding school. This is in decided contrast to the way that Judith Anderson played the role in the 1940's. Anderson was more wild actress than wild woman but, when you watched her, you were never in any doubt that you were seeing an extremely raw ego in torment -- I didn't see the 1982 production in which Anderson played the Nurse to Zoe Caldwell's Medea.
At the Longacre, whatever Euripides had in mind is bent into the shape of a well-spoken, great-lady star vehicle. Everybody else is at the star's command, the men especially. No matter what their status or the sense of the scene, they often stand in that stock-company feet-astride position that indicates orders are being awaited from their monarch. For all her wailing, this Medea is remote, chilly and awfully regal.
There are good moments in Mr. Elliot's text, a number of which go to the chorus of the three women of Corinth, well played and sung by Judith Paris, Jane Loretta Lowe and Nuala Willis. Apollo, one of them notes early on, liked women "dumb and dancing/ And chose no woman poet to inspire." Banalities abound. In response to Medea's "O Love, how great a curse you are to mortals," Creon answers feebly, "Well, that depends upon the circumstance." The high point of this "Medea" is not the end of the play but the first of its title character's two encounters with Jason (Tim Oliver Woodward). Medea pours out her scorn for a man who, it becomes apparent, is doubly loathed for not having been worthy of her love in the first place.
Though the production began at north London's sometimes adventurous Almeida Theater in September 1992, before moving to Wyndham's in the West End, it looks and sounds as if it had been tailored for mainstream audiences right from the start. The proper ingredients are all there: some new-found feminism, the strikingly memorable set and the sometimes gross contemporary locutions: "But," Medea says sarcastically to Jason during a fight, "in the much-used phrase, let's try to be friends." The audience laughs in appreciation and relief. Such lines divert the mind from the central, unknowable mystery of Medea herself. 'Fragments'